Mob Rule vs. Democracy


[The following article is reposted (and slightly edited) from Znet with permission from the author.]

Recently one Labour MP broke ranks and took part in a direct action against Israeli aggression in Gaza, helping to block access to a supermarket that stocked Israeli goods. This was immediately denounced by Tory MP Mike Freer as a “shameful” example of “mob rule,” a phrase the right-wing press quickly picked up on.

Although the political views of protestors at the NATO summit won’t have much else in common with those of Freer, some might share his worry. What right has anyone got to take disruptive action?  Who can say that they are the special ones that are allowed to impose their opinions on others by stopping business as usual?  Why can’t they work within the system that was set up to allow citizens to get their views across, for instance by voting?  Isn’t this mob rule vs. democracy?

On the last point both sides of this debate agree. Mob rule vs. democracy is exactly what this is about.

What is democracy?

First we need to get straight about what these terms must mean, if the question is to have any substance. Democracy means rule by the people. It means that people can have a substantial effect on the decisions that affect them. Anything calling itself democracy is not worthy of the name if it doesn’t deliver the goods on that.

True democracy, therefore, requires more than the right to stick a bit of paper in a box every now and again. People need the means to become properly informed about the issues that affect them. They need the means to develop their programs. And they need forums in which they can put these programs forward and affect the issues, whatever they might be.

In contrast, the phrase “mob rule” conjures up images of a dangerous crowd rushing toward their own goals without any regard for others. Decisions made by this violent band are imposed on the rest. Often, even the mob itself is compelled to act by forces beyond its own control.

Let us now compare these definitions to the political situation in the leading nations of NATO, such as the USA and UK. First we’ll examine what goes on when the system is working smoothly. Then we will see how the system reacts when things threaten to get out of control.

The Golden Rule

How can we know who is having the most influence on policy in states like these?  Recently Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University set out to answer this question in a wide-ranging study of US politics. According to their research paper, “Gilens and a small army of research assistants gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change.”

After working through the data, their main conclusion was that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

Going beyond this one study, over the last 30 years or so the political scientist Thomas Ferguson and his coauthors have produced an impressive body of research on political influence. Before Ferguson’s work, political scientists were having trouble coming up with a convincing account of voter influence on politics. What caused the massive shifts of policy at defining moments of American history such as the New Deal?  Was it because of corresponding massive changes in the electorate?  In their attempts to account for the facts, the researchers struggled to build more and more complicated models of voter blocks, with little convincing success.

Ferguson blew all of this out of the water with his “investment theory of party competition”. His conclusion is that “the fundamental market for political parties usually is not voters… The real market for political parties is defined by major investors, who generally have good and clear reasons for investing to control the state.” These “investors” are typically large corporations and groups of people connected with them. In comparison with shaky theories of “voter sovereignty”, the investment theory does an excellent job of explaining shifts like the New Deal, the Right Turn at the end of the seventies, and so on. Ferguson’s detailed research establishes how the interests of the major investors clearly shifted in exactly the right direction at the right time. His painstaking data collection and analysis demolish the arguments of critics, and have never been convincingly countered by anyone who thinks that voters have the real power. Much more on this theme can be found in Ferguson’s book The Golden Rule in which some of his research is collected.

So, how do these investors manage to control state policy so well?  Some of the ways in which this is done are pretty clear, for instance the £1,647,500 that John Mills donated to the Labour party. On the website Conservativehome, former Telegraph writer Jonathan Isaby once lamented “the stark fact is that if [a £50,000 cap] on donations were in force, the Conservative Party would not have enough cash to function as an entity.”  Isaby did not stop to consider the consequences of this claim for the whole idea of democracy.

However, much of the support of big business comes in other forms – ones that get around public scrutiny. Ferguson lists 32 such methods including investment tips, honoraria to staff, support for vote drives and so on. Beyond funneling cash to parties, big business provides all kinds of other services, such as passing on valuable information, offering well-paid positions after retirement and supporting think tanks that formulate and influence government policy. All this gives an overwhelming advantage over parties that don’t serve their interests; here we really find the party that can barely “function as an entity.” In view of this, it’s not difficult to see why all the mainstream political fighting goes on inside a narrow range of policies favouring different factions within the world of the big investors.

These influences also infect other areas of public life, further burying meaningful democracy under a pile of money. The media, which is largely made up of huge corporations itself, has to worry about advertising revenue, not to mention keeping well-placed sources happy and staying out of the way of well-funded political flak campaigns. This leads to a predictable towing of the line, as documented in the work of Chomsky and Hermann (amongst others).

Then there’s the elephant in the room. It’s uncontroversial that the major corporations have a defining role in setting the main patterns of the economy. They also control what happens during half the waking hours of millions of people (that’s called having a job). The decisions being made here are almost completely insulated from outside control; in the corporation, influence coming from unions and government can’t even be compared with the power of the board of directors or the major shareholders. If democracy means people having a meaningful say in decisions that affect them, where does this leave us?

Like the angry mob mentioned earlier, the “major investors” here are often compelled by strong forces that they don’t themselves control. If a major corporation were not able to turn of a profit and defend its market share, it wouldn’t be a major corporation for long. If the executives were not prepared to help to secure this profit at all costs (including influencing politics), they wouldn’t be executives in the first place. If a party doesn’t fit in with this, it won’t have the money to research policies and run a decent campaign. And so on, and so on. This is how actions that are insane from the point of view of people in general (like the continuing reliance of fossil fuels, for instance) can still take effect: they are sane from the point of view of profit. The odd MP or journalist might be a loose cannon in this system, but in general the juggernaut rumbles on.

Nudging Labour into line

Unfortunately for powerful elites, these quiet mechanisms don’t function smoothly all the time. In such cases, they have to resort to other methods. One example of particular relevance for the NATO summit is the story of the UK Labour Party’s nuclear disarmament policy. [1]

Once upon a time, the Labour Party (and some of those who funded it) was not as content to go along with the corporate agenda as it is now. In 1960, a CND-backed group within the party won the day: the Labour Party conference declared a policy of “complete, unilateral nuclear disarmament and neutrality in the cold war”. Two resolutions supporting NATO were defeated.

All this was bad news for US “major investors” and their government. But long before this, the CIA had had the foresight to set up a tangled network of journals, news wires, and funding agencies designed to defend against just such an eventuality. The right wing of the Labour Party already had many links to these organisations. After the party conference this machinery swung into action. A committee was set up to reverse the disarmament resolution, and soon had enough funds for a permanent office, full-time paid chairman and staff, field workers, tons of literature, a regular free bulletin, and so on. Much of the money came from “a source that wished to remain anonymous”.

The anti-war wing of the party had no resources to match this blitzkrieg. The next conference overturned the disarmament decision, and pushed Labour back towards NATO.

 Maintaining privilege

There is a bigger problem for the major investors in politics. Sometimes the rest of the population realizes what is going on. They might even get together and start trying to do something about it. It is important to understand what can happen in cases like this [2].

The 1960’s were a time of increased agitation on many fronts. The black community in the US had had enough of the lack of meaningful civil rights reform, and they began to rise up against the widespread violence against their community, carried out in no small part by the forces of the state itself. The Black Panther Party (BPP) came out of this agitation, encouraging others to change the status quo. They rapidly gained in strength, amassing around 5000 members in two years, and showed promise to spread further. The party advised people not to remain passive when brutalized by the police. One leader, Fred Hampton, had the following to say:

We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.

On December 4, 1969, a heavily armed 14-man police team broke into Hampton’s apartment. While lying in his bed, he was shot three times, twice in the head at point blank range. In the raid, the police fired at least 98 shots. It is unclear whether the panthers shot one (during the final convulsions of Mark Clark, also killed), or none.

Following the release of many FBI memoranda and other documents, we now have excellent evidence that the BPP was targeted for liquidation by the FBI, as part of the infamous COINTELPRO operation. Many of these documents are reprinted in the invaluable COINTELPRO papers, including a floor plan of Hampton’s apartment provided by an FBI infiltrator. Beyond the murder of Hampton, the FBI engaged in a catalogue of illegal tactics to destroy the BPP and other such groups. They sent false letters to discredit the party, destroy alliances and provoke violence against the BPP; they attempted to “bad-jacket” important activists as police spies; they planted false evidence of anti-Semitism and assassination plots; they organized spurious criminal prosecutions, and so on. By 1970 “arrests, trials, shootouts and police and FBI harassment” had “jailed, killed or exiled most of the top leadership of the party” (Political Repression in Modern America, p. 529).

This is just one example of the criminal practices employed during COINTELPRO to head off the involvement of ordinary people in meaningful politics. Other targets included blackmail actions against Martin Luther King, stirring up the trouble that led to the death of Malcolm X, and similar actions against the Puerto Rican independence movement, the New Left, and the American Indian Movement.

Government documents concerning today’s policing of dissent are not yet available. We do know, however, that officers in the UK have gone deep undercover to infiltrate and disrupt the animal rights and climate movements. They were authorized to sleep with and even form long-term relationships with activists, only to disappear after years of intimacy, in one case leaving behind a child. Ongoing efforts to disrupt effective movements for social change include use of terrorism legislation “to stop, search and detain people without suspicion” and personal harassment combined with divide and rule strategies.

These cases are not an aberration. They are just a few of the many examples of what can happen when people get together and credibly threaten the interests of elites. To see this, we can go back to the start of modern policing. According to historian E.P. Thompson and others, the main reason for the initial establishment and expansion of the police force in the UK was the need to contain the growing power of the new working class. Some of the evidence for this comes directly from statements made by the founders and planners of the new force. It’s also interesting to compare early increases in police numbers to the rate of strikes (which reveals a lot), and then to the rate of crime (which reveals precisely nothing).

Luckily these tactics don’t always succeed; as Howard Zinn documents, most of the liberties now enjoyed by citizens of the US were won out of such struggles, and the same can be said in the UK. As a result, there are at least some constraints on what the state can get away with – at home.

Mob rule reconsidered

Outside countries like the US and UK, other methods can be used to make sure that the interests of the “major investors” are satisfied. The region between Mexico and the Panama Canal is a good example, as it is one of the places where US interests have most control: North American businesses have typically owned almost everything of major commercial value in these countries. [3]

Here things can be arranged much more conveniently than at home. For example, released documents and other sources show how the United Fruit Company (UFC) was incensed by some mild land reform processes in Guatemala and other reforms that threatened to bite into their profit margins. They successfully pressured the US government to act, aided the 1953-1954 CIA coup, and took independent subversive action of their own. A former director of the CIA was later named to the company’s board of directors. This was one among many such interlocks between the US government and UFC.

US government management of “business as usual” in the region is consistent, across nations and across decades.  Working through the CIA, it has deposed liberal regimes and supported brutal dictatorships, helping to set up, train and arm repressive state forces throughout the region.  All this has kept Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador safe for US corporations to exploit – with a few exceptions.

In El Salvador, church and civil society groups started to organize together and protest against the corrupt US-backed regime after a fixed election in 1977. Peaceful protests led to widespread lethal violence and suppression, and no significant change in government. The political situation quickly spun out of control and rebels took to the hills. In 1980, when a New York Times reporter asked the president of the ruling junta why this had happened, he was surprised by the answer:

Fifty years of lies, fifty years of injustice, fifty years of frustration. This is a history of people starving to death, living in misery. For fifty years the same people had all the money, all the jobs, all the education, all the opportunities. [4]

It’s interesting to note that this had little to do with the much-hyped bogeyman of the time, the Communists, let alone the Soviets. For example, “the Communist Party was the last group on the left to join the guerilla forces” [5]. There is a related story in Guatemala, and in Nicaragua, where leftists overthrew a brutal US-backed dynasty in 1979.

What was the response to these threats to US interests?  Here is a sample of the available accounts. The first was recounted by Daniel Santiago, a catholic priest working in El Salvador.

Santiago told of a peasant woman who came home one day to find her three children, her mother and her sister sitting around a table, each with their own decapitated heads placed carefully on the table in front of the body, hands arranged on top “as if each body was stroking its own head”. The killers, from the US backed Salvadorian National Guard, had struggled to keep the head of an 18-month old baby in place, so its hands were nailed onto it. A large plastic bowl full of blood stood in the centre of the table. [6]

The second is from a mother of two from Estelí in Nicaragua:

 Five of them raped me at about five in the in evening… the gang raped me every day… I calculate that in 5 days they raped me 60 times. [7]

The third is from an unnamed Salvadorian peasant woman:

The National Guard came to her village in US-supplied helicopters, killing her three children among others, chopping the children into pieces and throwing them to the village pigs: “the soldiers laughed all the while,” she said. [8]

The second account is taken from a fact-finding mission by a New York law firm that collected 140 pages of similar testimony with 150 affidavits. Reports by church groups, human rights monitors, legal teams and other visitors provide hundreds of equally horrifying accounts. Similar conditions reigned elsewhere in the region at the time. Overall, between 1981 and 1989 alone, the toll amounted to “more than 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, more than 100,000 in Guatemala, and 30,000 killed in the US contra war against Nicaragua” [9]. With the total population of the region in mind, the picture is one of unimaginable terror. A mountain of evidence, summarized in the books listed above, shows that US forces trained and materially aided those carrying out these depraved acts.

All the while Reagan continued his panegyrics to American democracy; all the while the US media confirmed the goodwill of their government and remained silent about the scale of the atrocities; all the while the thousands of infant corpses continued to pile up.

Mike Freer MP says that standing in the doorway of a supermarket is mob rule. He claims that those who value democracy should always work within the existing system. Supporters of Stop NATO Cymru answer: this is your system. This is your democracy.

Taking action

In the face of all this horror it is easy to withdraw from what is happening. But for any person of conscience this will not bring peace of mind. For such people, it is impossible to solve the problem of a crying child just by shutting a door. To those suffering from hypocrisy intolerance, taking even small actions to resist inhumanity and injustice is the best treatment. It helps to know that joining together and taking action can result in real change.

Opportunities for this will be plentiful in the Week of Action against the NATO summit, starting on Saturday, 30th of August.


[1]  This story is told in Dirty Work, Philip Agee and Louis Wolf (eds.), New Jersey, 1978, p. 200. More details can be found in Killing Hope, William Blum, p. 104.

[2] This account is based on the one to be found in The COINTELPRO papers by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, p.91.

[3] References for what follows can be found in Killing hope by William Blum, Bitter Fruitby Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Turning the tide and What Uncle Sam really wants by Noam Chomsky, and also Guardians of power by David Edwards and David Cromwell.

[4] Quoted by Raymond Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, p. 24.

[5] Killing Hope, p.355.

[6] Guardians of power, p.140.

[7]Reed Brody, Contra Terror in Nicaragua, South End Press, 1985.

[8] Elizabeth Hanley, In These Times, April 17, 195, cited in Turning the tide, p.22.

[9] Guardians of power, p.139.

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